Look Before You Leap in North Korea

Happiness is having your very own atomic bomb. This week we saw pictures of beaming North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, examining either a nuclear model or maybe even the real warhead of a miniaturized nuclear weapon.

Having a nuclear warhead is not, however, enough to scare your enemies and neighbors. You’ve got to have a fast, reliable delivery system. On his last birthday, a joyous Kim revealed what may be a submarine-launched missile believed capable of carrying a nuclear weapon.

Added to Kim’s new intercontinental ballistic missile (which may or may not work), the sub-launched strategic missile gave the South Koreans, Japanese and Americans apoplexy. China was not far behind in blasting the impudent North Koreans.

Meanwhile, a hugely provocative military exercise is underway, involving 15,000 US troops, 300,000 South Koreans, and an armada of US warplanes and warships. These war games are an annual event that enrages North Korea because they are obviously rehearsing an invasion of the North, and the decapitation of its leadership – namely Kim Jong-un.

Predictably, Kim threatened blood-curdling revenge on the US and its “South Korean and Japanese lackeys.” He ordered North Korea’s limited nuclear forces onto red alert. Whether pure bluff or not remained unknown. American generals claimed Kim’s ICBM’s can now hit the US West Coast. But the Pentagon also warned of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

What we are really witnessing is North Asian Kabuki: a highly stylized mock confrontation that pleases all sides. It gives the US a perfect excuse to keep a powerful garrison in South Korea and the region, and to add reinforcements as part of President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia.” China’s angry responses are to be ignored.

North Korea’s threats are also allowing the US to go ahead with implanting a new THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea. High altitude THAAD will be of little use to defend South Korea. Any North Korean missile attack will come at low altitude and very short range- Seoul is only 40 km from North Korea’s border.

THAAD is really designed to intercept any missile launches from China against the US or Japan (including Okinawa). Beijing is fit to be tied over THAAD – just as Moscow was over the foolish plan to put a US antimissile system in Bulgaria and Romania. Russia is glowering.

Beating war drums helps keep Kim and his military-dominated regime in power in spite of economic hardship. Japan and South Korea will get more military aid from the US.

China, by contrast, gets the short end of the stick: it is forced to reluctantly tighten sanctions on an old ally, North Korea, while seeing new US military forces emplace themselves in its strategic and vulnerable Northeast.

Discount, or even ignore, all the howling about the danger of Kim’s North Korea. His sabre rattling and nuclear arms are defensive. They are the result of Washington’s refusal to recognize the Pyongyang regime and crushing sanctions against the North. A non-aggression pact would likely end Kim’s nuclear program.

But there’s a far larger risk from North Korea that is hardly ever discussed: the potential collapse of the Kim dynasty and North Korea’s descent into chaos. First, there will be a mass exodus of millions of starving North Koreans to South Korea that Seoul calls, “unexpected reunification.”

An even larger danger would be caused by any political/military vacuum in the North. This would quickly create a dangerous confrontation between US Asian forces, South Korea, Japan and neighboring China. A vacuum in such a strategic location must draw in all regional powers, including Russia – Vladivostok is just up the coast.

China needs a friendly North Korea as a buffer state to protect its vital Northeast region that was the site of the first Japanese-China War in 1894 and the bloody, 1904 Russo-Japanese War. Beijing cannot allow the US to turn North Korea into a second South Korea – a useful vassal state occupied by American, South Korean and possibly Japanese troops.

It’s only a mere 3.5 hour drive from North Korea’s Yalu River border to China’s key northern port of Dalian, gateway to the Beijing heartland.

Objectionable and cruel though it is, the Kim regime in Pyongyang is the cork that keeps this scary genii in its bottle. Any change in North Korea’s equilibrium could plunge North Asia into the gravest crisis at a time when the region is also seething with tensions over China’s attempts to dominate the South China Sea.

After foolishly overthrowing Libya’s Col. Muammar Khadaffi, and thus unleashing waves of jihadism against North Africa, the Sahara and West Africa, one would think the West had learned a valuable lesson about being short-sighted and uneducated. But it seems here we go again in North Asia.

The US just can’t abstain from mixing in other people’s local conflicts. Why else would US troops be scattered across West and East Africa?

Caution is advised. The Kim we know will always be preferable to the Kim we don’t.

Eric S. Margolis is an award-winning, internationally syndicated columnist. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune the Los Angeles Times, Times of London, the Gulf Times, the Khaleej Times, Nation – Pakistan, Hurriyet, – Turkey, Sun Times Malaysia and other news sites in Asia.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2016

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